Sunday 5 December 2010

The November Project: Observations from a month away from Facebook and Twitter

Well, it's December now, and that means it must be time for me to jump back onto Facebook and Twitter. But before I do, I wanted to gather my thoughts about the experience and share what I have learnt from it. I thought I'd do this in a form of a Q & A with myself.

What was it like?
Well for one thing, it was not as hard as I imagined it would be. I used a variety of techniques to physically block myself from Twitter and Facebook - but it turned out these were not necessary, willpower was sufficient. The closest I got was when other websites or apps tried to embed Facebook boxes or twitter feeds and I almost got tricked into clicking through. I suppose one telling thing is that now it's the 5th of December and I haven't rushed back on Facebook and Twitter yet, even though I could have five days ago. My main reason was I wanted to get this blog post written first, before I am "polluted" by going back on - but even so, I haven't been in a great hurry. Another thing I noticed was several times when out and about and I had the urge to tweet or post to Facebook, it felt a little odd not to share that moment - but it wasn't a big deal and the feeling soon subsided. Overall, the experience wasn't hard at all.

Was it more relaxing being away from social media?
Definitely. The most amazing thing is I actually feel like time slowed down. That's a pretty profound thing to say, but when I think back to the beginning of November, it seems like months ago. Previous months seemed to whizz by. I think that, as I theorized beforehand, with fewer inputs, my brain actually was able to quiet down a bit and make me feel more relaxed.

What did you miss?
I think probably the biggest thing I missed was that if I wanted to share something with friends, there's no easy way to do so. The fact is that most people's attention now is on Facebook or Twitter. That's where their eyes are. It is no longer sufficient to update your own blog or site and hope that people will arrive there. If you want people to discover it, Facebook and Twitter are by far the most efficient way. It's true that you could email things out to friends, but I've always thought mass emails seem a bit impersonal. It's like saying "hey, over here, look at me, aren't I important?".  I think sending big emails out is not something that comes naturally to me except for Christmas letters. Facebook and Twitter feel more like just putting something out there, without any pressure on people to give you their attention. Funny really since in a way social media is even more impersonal than targeted emails.

Another thing I missed was when I was going through my old photos in iPhoto, I came across various "fringe acquaintances" whose names I couldn't remember. I could have checked that stuff easily on Facebook. I suppose you could argue that if I can't remember someone's name then they can't be that important. 

Something else I missed was being able to quickly ask a question to a large group of people. Facebook and even moreso Twitter are incredibly useful for this. There are services like Aardvark that can help, but they don't have the same kind of audience. There are some questions where Google is not sufficient - typically ones that involve a subjective opinion, like "where's a good place to eat" or "is that film any good".
I also realised that Facebook and Twitter are a sort of social crutch. They make you feel good by making you feel artificially close to your friends. I missed that contact with my friends. I think that given I live abroad from many of my friends, there is clearly a value to having some level of contact, and Facebook and Twitter can help there. But what I learnt is that it's not really a substitute for real life contact. Phonecalls, emails and video chats can help, but nothing beats actually seeing your friends face to face.

What did it teach you about Facebook and Twitter?
I think one thing I learned is that Facebook is a place. Not going there felt like skipping a few meetings of a regular club social group. Things happen there and if you're not there, you miss them. A few friends went to the trouble of emailing me photos or details of things that they'd shared on Facebook. Which was nice of them as it was probably a chore. My wife and I wondered why more people don't think of their friends that are not on Facebook - my wife is not on there and often misses things. It's like because I'd publicly said I was taking a break, it was more obvious.

One thing I realised is that the "Feed" approach of Facebook and particularly of Twitter is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it lets you keep track of a lot of things - friends' lives, news, interesting online tidbits etc - in one easy-to-check place. But a curse because you can never limit your attention to just one thing. You can't easily focus on just news, or just your friends - it's all mixed together. I am not sure of the solution here, because I don't want lots of places to check, but for the same reason I don't want Google Buzz in my email, I don't want a mix of different types of message in one place. I'd rather my news was separate from my social life, and my blog feeds separate again from that.

Another thing I learnt is that Facebook and Twitter are very good if you just want to share a brief observation. You know the sort of thing, an idle comment about the weather, or a news event, or some experience from your daily life. I did realise that some of those things are not worth sharing, they're rather trite and insignificant. But on the other hand, small talk is what helps us bond with our fellow humans, it's what makes bloggers and online personas seem like more than just the sum of their articles and postings. If you like, Facebook and Twitter allow us to take "small talk" and gossip into the digital world. Without them, you can only do that face to face.

What things did you do differently? How did your behaviour change?
I noticed that I became a lot less "twitchy". I had developed a habit of every few minutes throughout the day, check Facebook, check Twitter, check email... and repeat. This is a surefire way to destroy any focus you have on work or other activities. When it's reduced to just checking email - which arrives a lot less often, especially since I spent the month pruning a lot of unnecessary mailing list subscriptions - then you get distracted a lot less and can stay focussed for a lot longer. When I go back on I will have to try hard to limit the number of times a day I check. For sure, one thing I will do on that front is that I will keep Facebook and Twitter and Email updates OFF on my phone. None of these means of communication are urgent, and they can surely wait til later in the day when I next check them. If people want to contact me urgently, they can call or SMS me.

Another thing I realised (and this is both good and bad) is that Facebook and Twitter allows conversation about particular content that isn't really possible in other ways. Since we moved away from the world of everyone watching things at the same time (as they were broadcast), it has become much harder to have conversations about (for example) TV shows or cultural phenomena, because you can't guarantee that you're all at the same point. What Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter allow you to do is have a content-centric conversation, that is to say, you can share the link to the youtube video, article, clip, etc and discuss it around that content, knowing that you've all seen it. What this also means is that your friends and social media contacts become the filters by which you decide what to watch and what to read. We've moved from a world of broadcast channels where the programmer decides what you should watch, to a world where friends and online contacts make recommendations for you, and you make the choices.

The implication of this in terms of behaviour was two things. Firstly, without friends as recommenders, I started revisiting a lot of "destination sites" such as BBC News, Slashdot, The Register, friends blogs, etc. which I had got out of the habit of visiting. This was nice because it exposed me to news and views in the way that the publisher intended it, and in a context where I could view related content more easily. But I guess it probably did mean I missed out on what my friends were talking about.

The other thing was that I could no longer be a recommender for my friends. Throughout the month there were various films, events and articles that I would have shared, but didn't really have a good way to do so. I think this is an important purpose for Twitter and Facebook. I've realised that "sharing" of status and links is an activity in its own right. There is no real substitute. Email comes closest, but it doesn't cut it because you have to spend time choosing who to share with, and if it's something general that would be a pretty long to line - which would make you feel like a spammer. Blogging would work if RSS feeds ever actually took off and you could trust that people would actually see what you wrote. But without that, the likes of Facebook and Twitter are the only real way to share.

How will it change the way you use Facebook and Twitter?
Firstly, I think I am going to use them less. I noticed a real quality of life improvement when I cut out Facebook and Twitter.  I'm going to try and check them just once or twice a day maximum, and try not to get "twitchy" again, checking them throughout the day.

Secondly, I think I want to find a new way of using them both, to keep me more focussed. Ideally I'd like to be able to separate the activities of "seeing what my friends are up to and chatting with them" from "seeing what's happening in the news, online and in the media". I'm going to experiment with friends lists and different clients to see what I can do here.

One thing I am going to do right away is reinstall Flipboard on my iPad. I think this is a natural way to consume Facebook and Twitter from a news/updates to friends' lives point of view, as it lets you read them like a newspaper. I'm going to try to use that as my primary browse method, rather than Facebook feed or twitter feeds, because it's more natural, and more defined in scope somehow.

Having said all that, I have confirmed that I will not be leaving Facebook or Twitter any time soon. Both have a value, and they did leave a (small) gap in my life. I'd like it if there were ways of accessing their capabilities in a more structured way, and more in my own control, so I will keep investigating alternative clients and software to see what I can find.

I might still take the odd hiatus like this again from Facebook and Twitter in the future. It was undoubtedly a really positive thing to do, if only because it gave me more perspective on my use of social media. Now I can act in a more informed way. It will be interesting to see how differently I feel once I go back on. Time to post this and check in!

PS Please add your comments below, and feel free to ask more questions that I haven't addressed!




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